David Ellsworth is a true master when it comes to woodturning. I mean that not in the off-the-cuff overused sense of the term “he’s a master,” but in the actual definition.
A master dedicates himself to the craft not just for the results but for the process, the practice, and the spiritual aliveness that occurs at every point along the way. Mastery is David Ellsworth’s connection to the art of woodturning.
You don’t have to turn wood long before you hear the name, David Ellsworth. And there’s a good reason.
Road to Mastery
I can’t think of many creative outlets (a.k.a. hobbies) with as many possible and potential levels of expertise and artistic expression as woodturning.
Consider this for a moment. A person can learn how to turn a bowl in an afternoon and walk away with a finished piece. That same person, even with diligent regular practice, can spend the rest of their life mastering and honing the art of bowl turning.
If we choose, we can simply play and dabble with wood turning and have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that.
However, we can also immerse ourselves in the process of turning and grow our skills to the point where we can stretch and creatively explore endless possibilities.
David Ellsworth is a person who has spent the majority of his adult life turning and creating expressions through the medium of wood. His art embodies the intimate beauty of the natural world while also documenting his life and creative journey.
Where Does It All Start?
When I asked David what advice he would like to share with new or novice wood bowl turners, he replied, “practice, practice, practice.”
Hm? Dang. Apparently, there isn’t a shortcut. Ha.
David further explained, “practice on inexpensive green wood, like poplar, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s how we learn.”
How many times do we fuss and worry about making just the right cut at just the right angle? That internal tension doesn’t benefit our turnings.
Give yourself a break and play a bit, while maintaining regular safety practices, of course.
David went on to say, “Blow it up. Go through the bottom. No big deal…it’s only wood.”
David Ellsworth In Person
Recently I was able to attend a David Ellsworth workshop at his home studio in North Carolina.
The entire weekend was an incredible experience that included learning, turning, eating meals with David and his wife Wendy, turning, being snowed in and spending a couple of evenings with them, turning some more and digging my car out of their snowed-in driveway at the end.
It was an amazingly memorable experience and an excellent story for a later time.
In person, David has a very methodical and easy-to-follow way of teaching woodturning. Even with his many years as an expert, he savors sharing the fundamentals that every turner must understand.
Here are seven valuable insights I learned from David Ellsworth.
1. Just A Bit Off
David starts most turnings, whether it be a bowl or a hollow form, between centers.
With a drive (or dead) center in the headstock spindle and a live center rotating in the tailstock, the initial bowl blank is pinned to the lathe with pressure applied at the tailstock.
Working with two points gives David the ability to stop and adjust the position of the bowl blank.
Why adjust the bowl blank?
That’s a great question. After the bottom shape of the bowl has been roughly shaped, the grain and form of the wood bowl become more apparent.
Because the blank is mounted between centers, the tailstock can easily be loosened to release and reposition the blank to better line up grain lines or internal structures that weren’t first visible.
David also uses this technique to adjust the grain lines of the wood along the top of the bowl.
Crooked Bowl Rim
Have you ever walked into a room that had a few slightly crooked photos hanging on the wall? Some people don’t seem to notice and don’t care, while others need to straighten the frames immediately to feel at ease.
Our bowls can be made nice and level by using the between centers technique shared by David Ellsworth.
Try this with your next bowl.
Mount the bowl blank between centers and peel away a few layers until the bowl bottom is roughed out.
Stop the lathe and place the tool rest close to the top rim of the bowl.
Use your thumb as a marker and place the edge of your thumb along the top grain of the bowl on one side of the end grain.
Keep your thumb in place and manually turn the bowl blank over to the other end grain side.
How many grain lines down is your thumb on each side?
Take your time and use the tailstock to gently adjust the bowl blank until the rim is even on both sides of the end grain.
This technique works for regular rimmed bowls but is especially useful for turning equal sides of a natural edged bowl.
2. It’s All From The Center
The energy we use to turn wood and do everything else in life for that matter comes from our core or our center.
“Energy from the cut is coming from chi or our center,” David explains.
Ideally, we want to maintain an equilateral triangle between our shoulders, arms, and bowl gouge as we turn, but there’s much more than just that.
Smooth flowing cuts with the bowl gouge do not come from stiff mechanical movements made only by the hands and arms.
If you’ve ever had the chance to practice Tai Chi or have seen someone practicing this exercise, perhaps you can envision the slow, smooth fluid movements of this practice.
It may seem silly at first, but we really need to flow and almost dance while we turn wood bowls.
The energy and fluid movements needed to turn delicate bowl shapes are specific extensions and reflections of our fluid body movements.
Pay attention to your body as you turn.
Do you finish a cut and end up in an uncomfortable position? Are you pushing your hand and pressing the tool across the tool rest? At the end of a turning session, are you sore and achy?
Ideally, we need to make most turning cuts on the lathe with our whole body. When we don’t engage our complete form, particular areas of our body and muscles can become fatigued and even injured.
Smooth fluid bowl gouge moves derive from body motions that fully engage the feet, ankles, legs, knees, hips, and entire upper body all in unison.
In some ways a wood turned bowl is a record of the movements of our body. Loosen up and flow with the process.
Moving your whole body will not only release tension and stress in you, but it will most likely also increase the gracefulness of your finished bowls.
3. Peek Into The Future
When shaping the exterior of a wood bowl, it can seem efficient and routine to quickly add a tenon and flip the bowl over for clearing out the center.
However, instead of rushing the exterior of the bowl, it’s worth taking an extra moment or two.
If you recall in my article about bowl design, “the exterior is the bowl,” and it’s worth taking extra time fine-tuning the bowl shape.
David offers a simple yet powerful suggestion for “seeing” the final bowl shape.
When shaping a tenon and shoulder on the base of the bowl, David recommends undercutting or continuing the curved walls of the bowl down into the bottom of the bowl a small bit.
The purpose of making inward cuts into the shoulder area of the base is to continue the sweeping curve of the bowl visually.
Adding these indented cuts makes it very easy for our eyes to see and our mind to connect the bottom curve of the bowl. They act almost as arrows that help us understand the overall curved path.
It can be easy to leave a gentle flowing chamfer curve at the base of the bowl when we make a tenon and shoulder, but this can easily lure us into later missing the bowl’s natural curve and forming an oversized clunky bowl foot, or worse, going through the bowl bottom.
Try this on your next bowl. Take a moment and undercut the bottom bowl shape into the tenon shoulder area to pre-visualize the final bowl shape.
4. Asymmetrical Surprise
This tip from David was a fun surprise. It was one of those moments when you shake your head and say out loud, “what?” Moreover, with a smile, you say, “why didn’t I think of that?”
A branch crotch is almost always an interesting piece of wood to turn. Grain running in different directions and merging creates numerous opportunities.
Usually, I split a crotch down the center and make two “Y” shaped pieces to turn.
Turning a regular rimmed bowl using the flat inside portion of the log for the rim can be interesting but usually omits the dynamic “flame” area where the two limbs fuse.
Flipping the crotch and making a natural edge bowl is the best way I’ve found to showcase the internal grain structures.
That’s what I had done with crotch wood up to that point when David made me shake my head in surprise.
On the dry erase board, David drew a “Y” crotch, but instead of suggesting a traditional turning approach, he took a massive bite out of one of the crotch branches, almost like a shark bite on the side of the “Y.”
Instead of turning a balanced and even natural edge bowl, by utilizing the upward curve of the extending branch, we can turn an asymmetrical natural edge bowl.
An exaggerated asymmetrical design all goes back to design basics. If you’re going to make something “off” or asymmetrical, don’t be shy, do it with style.
Unlike the rims being annoyingly just a touch off, which we fixed with the first tip above, this is a very deliberate design choice.
Not only does this asymmetrical natural edge bowl look unique, but it also begs the viewer to think, ponder, explore the grain, and wonder, “how was this made?”
5. Rubbing Wrong
Here is a practical tip that ties back into the art of cutting end grain wood without tear outs, which I cover more in this article about dealing with end grain tear out.
As we turn along the bowl interior, we can easily apply extra pressure to the gouge and force it into the wood more than is necessary.
Extra force combined with the smooth edge of the bowl gouge bevel can cause our tool to almost burnish and rub the wood end grain fibers and leave marks.
One way to reduce this issue is to grind away the heel of the bowl gouge. As I explained in the bowl gouge basics article, the heel reduction makes less bevel to rub the wood and also allows the gouge to turn tighter curves efficiently.
When making push cuts, especially finishing cuts, we want to move slowly and evenly and only apply enough pressure to engage the cutting edge without much additional force.
6. New Perspective
This tip is so simple that I almost didn’t include it here. However, significant benefits hide in simplicity.
While working in David Ellsworth’s studio, I was turning the exterior of a bowl when David waved me over and asked me to come with him.
I had no idea where we were going. As it turned out, we didn’t go far, just the other side of the lathe.
Once away from the turning side of the lathe, I stood next to David and waited. He bent over, 90° at his waist and looked at the bowl sideways.
At first, I thought he was looking at the floor and may have dropped something in all the shavings. Then he asked me to do the same.
“Oh, wow,” I thought. The bowl does look very different without the tool rest and banjo interfering, not to mention the hovering vantage point of working above the bowl.
In front of the lathe, bent over sideways, the overall shape of the entire bowl exterior is clearly visible and accessible to visualize and decipher.
Try this next time. It can be beneficial when making subtle adjustments to the bowl design.
7. Shaking Hands
A few times during the workshop, David mentioned the concept of “shaking hands with the wood.”
When I asked him to expound on this statement, he added: “it’s a way of learning how to cut within the limits of the material whether it’s ebony or pine, spalted, wet or dry.”
In many ways shaking hands with the wood is being aware and responsive in the moment.
Instead of making mechanical, repetitive, predetermined movements, listen to and feel the bowl gouge as you cut.
What is it telling you?
Engage with the process. Don’t just cut “because,” but rather be aware of the whole experience.
Again, this might feel a bit awkward at first, like “dancing” while turning, but when we are fully aware of what is occurring at the lathe we can more fully respond to the minute signals and messages the bowl blank is sending us.
“Try not to force (overpower) the wood with your tools when cutting. Instead, discover each material by working with it. Learn from it, as you would a new friend,” David explains.
Think about those moments when it all comes together. When the cut is smooth, and the shavings flow, that’s the sweet spot. That’s shaking hands with the wood.
David Ellsworth Conclusion
I hope by sharing these tips I learned from David Ellsworth, you are inspired and motivated to try new things.
Besides inspiration, David also shares many practical techniques that can make immediate improvements in your turning practice.
After all, that’s all we need, practice, practice, practice.
David also suggests taking hands-on classes. Learn from people who know what they are doing. There is no substitute for hands-on learning.
If you’d like to attend a workshop with David Ellsworth, check out his website for details. Besides conducting workshops in his home studio in North Carolina, David also offers classes at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado.
Knowledge is the key to expanding your turning skills. Being able to learn from a master like David Ellsworth is as good as it gets, like icing on the wood bowl turning cake.
Check out these articles next:
• 13 WAYS TO RUIN A WOODTURNED BOWL
• 7 VALUABLE GLENN LUCAS GEMS – WOOD BOWL TURNING WISDOM
• 9 STEPS TO SHEAR SCRAPING PERFECTION BOWL GOUGE TECHNIQUE
• 10 BOWL TURNING BASICS – IMPORTANT FAQS ANSWERED
• 14 WAYS TO AVOID GRAIN TEAR OUT WITH WOOD BOWL
I guess I had a different experience. I left the class mostly frustrated and feel like I wasted my time and money. I left a couple hours before anyone else.
I found it difficult to follow Dave. I’ve used shoulders on regular chucks for some time. I couldn’t easily adapt to using the large chuck which made it difficult to understand his base cut. I couldn’t get used to his tools and didn’t find the tool rest all that user friendly.
I had gone into the class hoping to slay the dragon of making the inside curve transition, but there wasn’t a lot on that except towards the end. That was basically the use of a detail gouge. I ended up blowing three bowls but managed to take a partially live one home with me that I’ll probably throw away.
Saying all that I did take away a couple of things. Taking time to ensure the woods symmetry when it’s mounted. And a return to turning between two live centers. I’d gotten away from that for some reason.
Thank you for writing and sharing!
Sorry to hear you didn’t have a great time at David’s. Everyone’s teaching style is different and it is hard to learn a ton in a few day or two.
Your positive take aways are great ones to keep in mind all the time when turning.
All the best to you and Happy Turning!
Very valuable article, and engagingly written – thank you very much.
Please could you say a bit more about what he told you regard where the bowl blank is cut from a crotch.
Sorry I couldn’t understand so far.
Best regards and with appreciation
Yes. Usually, we cut the crotch bowl blanks with the crotch laying flat in a Y-shape. Instead, he suggested turning a branch with the center main trunk being the base and the two branches are vertical, standing up, as side wings. And in doing so, he also suggested letting the two branches be asymmetrical or one higher than the other.
It’s an interesting take on orienting a crotch bowl blank. I’ve made a couple this way, but I must be honest. I much prefer the traditional crotch bowl blank in the Y-shape because you get to see the merging grain structure and patterns more clearly.
There’s no wrong or right way to do anything in turning (well, unless things become unsafe). It’s always good to explore and try new things.
Hi Kent, love your articles & pictures. I am also having trouble picturing how David Elworthy is doing the crotch. A picture of one completed might help. I have some crotch but I have not tried your way or Davids. I have just found a nice crotch that the city had dropped from a tree & would like to try. Thanks from London Canada Rob
OK, I’ll see what I can do for a visual for you. In the meantime, Happy Turning!
I love turning on the crotch of the Y because of the confluence of the grains, but I’m game to try the method David mentioned – it’s a challenge as the assymmetry for roughing out will definitely make me take my time to getting the shape of the inside of the bowl. That said, I DO love the bark and already had plans to just take out the inside bowl part and leave all the rest alone. Half a log with a dip in it!
My biggest challenge seems to be getting the foot of the bowl into a chuck tenon right after centering and shaping the outside of any bowl.
Yes, this design is a bit of a challenge. Be sure you’re making a crisp tenon. I have a couple of articles all about tenons. Take your time and enjoy the whole process. You’ve got this.
All the best to you and Happy Turning!
I really enjoyed this article. Being able to go and work with someone like David Ellsworth is something I would really enjoy doing. The amount of information you could learn from someone like David, is phenomenal. However, until I am able to attend a class with David or someone else with his caliber of turning, I will continue visiting sites such as yours and watching videos on YouTube.
In your article, you mentioned turning between centers when beginning a bowl. I have actually been doing this for sometime now since watching a video by Lyle Jamieson. Lyle does a very good job explaining why and how to begin turning between centers in his video.
Thanks again for such a great website and a wonderful article.
Thank you for your kind words.
As always very helpful Kent. I wish I could one day take advantage of such hands on expertise with the likes of such talented artisans as Dave E! Thanks for sharing I always learn from you.
Thank you so much for your kind words.
While not in person, I’m working on a very unique and informative online turning course that will hopefully be out before the end of the year.
All the best to you!
Your best talent, if I may, is the ability to teach, and second is your production of what you teach. In my humble opinion, you may join David as a master teacher. Your ability to break down what other masters do, and then write about the experience in a way that we all can understand and practice is second to none.
I also, spent a weekend with David and drove home to Upstate NY, very frustrated, and mad as hell at David. All the way home thinking I was ripped off. When I arrived home, I immediately stormed downstairs, grabbed a blank of wood, turned on the lathe put on my face shield, and stared at it turning, and as I was watching it turn, my anger began to subside, and my wife came down to the shop, a bit angry, as I didn’t say hello when I came in, she saw the look of confusion on my face, and asked if I was alright. I apologized and asked if it was okay for me to spend some time alone, she agreed and left with a smile. I continued to stare at the block of wood, grabbed the finger gouge I purchased from David, and proceeded to turn, yes turn! I suddenly felt the exhilaration of turning the way David showed me…I’ll be, as I let out a word, I’d prefer not to write, and continued, knowing” I had learned how to learn” during my time with David…that friends, is the sign of a master teacher!
Kent has allowed me to continue the process of learning, and he just acknowledged that, by including that which he learned from David. I would love to]experience the two of you together…a symphony of two. Give it some thought. I listened to Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole when they did a battle of drums at the Metropole Cafe in NYC in 1956, I was 16 years old. And they allowed me to stand between them and a picture was taken…oh, I said my age was 18. Legal to hold the scotch and water, I had in my hand.
The two of you together, would be for me at almost 80, that kind of experienc!.
Thank you Kent for the existence of your website, and your tips..sorry my note was so long, but it was written for you and David…no need to publish it.
Have you increased your use of turning between centers since your visit with David Ellsworth? If so, it may be worthwhile to do a separate article (in your nicely expanding library) on pearls of turning between centers. As a neophyte, I have been using faceplate and external tenon and then turning off the tenon with Cole jaws (and painters tape so I don’t spin it off and crack it). I want to try an internal tenon and I want to try turning between centers. I will trial and error as always but tips from you are always appreciated.
Yes, I have been doing more end-to-end turnings since my Ellsworth visit.
The end-to-end turnings allow for easy adjustments during the turning.
Have you tried using a jam chuck to turn the base? Check out this article.
All the best to you!
Very useful tips.
Will need to review the asymmetrical tip.
Already finding the tip on body balance, and triangle form useful.
So much to learn! Fully concur with comments re. The magnetism of this craft.
My teacher learned from David.
Thanks for sharing.
David is a great founder and inspiration for many turners!
Great advice, and well written ,
The turning of wood is something you can
Enjoy the beauty and form your choosing,
Thank You for such an inspiring Article.
Thank you for leaving a comment and such kind words. Much appreciated!
Great job on giving some insights into David and his work. I was lucky enough to be in his classes four or five times when he lived near me outside of Quakertown, Pa. I also had the privilege of working as his teaching assistant three different time at the Arrowmont School. You have touched on the things that make him such a great teacher and person. I am sure you will remember your time with him, as I do, for years to come. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Thanks for writing.
It sounds like you’ve had quite the opportunities to spend time with David. Great for you!
My biggest take away was being able to see woodturning from the perspective of a master artist, a very humble and sharing master artist.
Thanks again and Happy Turning,
I also spent a weekend with David and Wendy, and The time spent with David taught me how little I really knew about the “art” of turning.
I began the process, of “un-learning” that which I had taught myself. A very difficult process!
After arriving home, I thought- hell, he didn’t teach me anything…nice guy, lovely wife, nice weekend, but did I learn anything? It took me a month or so to begin to understand …let the wood talk to me…begin to understand why certain processes are cast in stone.
So, it is an emotional and intellectual journey, and I wish I had met him three years ago. Understand before one picks up a tool, that preparing yourself intellectually is most important. It doesn’t matter, whether you are turning for fun, or want to eventually sell what you produce.
One way to do this, is to spend a weekend with David and Wendy…it’s about the entire experience, not only the time spent turning on the lathe.
One extra piece of advice, if I may…join Kent and subscribe to his website- http://www.TurnAWoodBowl.com. It is the very best site I have found after 4-5 years of searching.
What one will find is honesty, as well as theory and practical advice on turning.
Now, we have the two people I most admire in the art of turning–David and Kent. Join me and thousands of others in this wonderful journey to be the best you can be in what you produce. Bill D.
Thank you for writing and for all the kind words.
Learning foundational turning skills first and having them as a bedrock to expand from is critical.
I’m glad you had the opportunity to learn from David as well. What he teaches isn’t filled with hocus pocus and stage tricks. No, the real skills needed to master the art of turning are not as flashy, but much more important.
Nothing can replace taking the time to work with a master like David Ellsworth. To get the most out of the experience you need to approach everything fresh and new as if you know nothing.
I learned a great lesson from my woodturning mentor (see this article). His rule is, “check your ego at the door.” The beauty of this, if it is practiced, is that not only do people not go around acting like they know everything, they are also open to learning new skills and ideas.
After all, we should be learning all the time. What’s the quote? “If you’re not learning, you’re dying.” Something like that.
My goal is to make this website a virtual hub for all the information possible to learn how to turn wood bowls.
There’s plenty more to come and tons to learn.
Thanks again Bill, you’re very kind!
This was a very insightful article. Thank you.
Thank you and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. David is a great turner to learn from.